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Crashes that killed people on foot went up after the pandemic began. New research looks at the places that saw the sharpest increases and the factors that make their streets especially dangerous.
The climb in pedestrian deaths at the start of the pandemic came largely because of increased fatalities in areas where streets are not designed to accommodate walkers, according to an analysis from advocacy groups released Tuesday.
“Walking trips increased during the pandemic in every state and metro area we analyzed, regardless of climate or geography,” said Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America. “That showed that there’s a huge demand for walking across the country. But more walking only led to more deaths in some places.”
Places where walking to work was common before the pandemic had “much lower increases” in pedestrian fatality rates in recent years than places where walking to work was rarer, Osborne said.
“This underscores the fact that these tragedies are preventable. More walking does not have to equal more deaths, if streets are designed with safety as the top priority,” added the authors of the new report, called “Dangerous by Design.”
The annual report, produced by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition, has tied the rise in pedestrian deaths over the last decade to street designs that focus primarily on moving vehicles quickly. (Transportation for America is part of Smart Growth America.)
The researchers used data from cell phones and other mobile devices gathered by a company called StreetLight Data to get a sense of how walking behavior changed since the pandemic disrupted American society in 2020. That information filled in some of the gaps in government data. The Census Bureau asks people whether they walk to their jobs, but those answers changed significantly as people started working from home.
The report focused much of its criticism on the design of “arterial” roads—the wide, car-collecting streets that funnel traffic to and from sites like housing subdivisions and strip malls. While they make up only 15% of roads in the country, those kinds of roads make up two-thirds of pedestrian deaths in urban areas.
The roads also include many features that help speed up car traffic but make walking nearby dangerous.
As an example, the report showed a busy road in Memphis. The corners at its intersections are rounded, which lets vehicles get on the street without slowing down but increases the distance pedestrians must travel between curbs. The “zebra stripe” pattern marking crosswalks on the pavement were faded, and the crosswalks themselves were far apart. Meanwhile, utility poles and other obstructions sat in the middle of sidewalks.
“Fundamental components of accepted street design actively put people at risk and increase the likelihood that people walking and moving actively using assistive devices such as wheelchairs, walkers, sight canes, prosthetics, and scooters will continue to pay the — often deadly — price,” the report’s authors wrote.
“These practices also can set drivers up to fail by making mistakes more common and the consequences more deadly, even when following the rules,” they added.
The groups found that New Mexico was the most dangerous state for pedestrians, a designation previously held by Florida. South Carolina, Arizona and Delaware rounded out the top five.
The report ranked states and metro areas based on deaths per 100,000 residents over a five-year timeframe. The groups changed the methodology from previous reports to account for behavioral changes brought on by the pandemic.
All of the top 20 most dangerous metro areas identified in the report were south of the Mason-Dixon line. Daytona Beach, Albuquerque and Memphis topped the list.
The authors said that the regional disparities were not surprising, because it reflects how and when metro areas were developed.
“The bulk of the growth and development in these regions has taken place in an era (post-1960) where low-density sprawling land uses and high-speed, multi-lane arterial highways have been the dominant form, with historic amounts of state and federal transportation funding poured into street designs that are deadly for everyone, especially people walking,” they wrote.
Only 19 of the country’s 100 most populous metro areas showed improvements in pedestrian safety, and the size of their improvements was small compared to how much pedestrian deaths had increased elsewhere in the country. The Scranton area in Pennsylvania showed the biggest improvement, followed by the metro areas that encompass Provo, Utah; Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Worcester, Massachusetts
“These metro areas have built 70 years of dangerous roads to retrofit, and these improvements, while welcome and needed, are the exception and not the rule,” the report’s authors wrote.
Most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians
- Daytona Beach, Florida
- Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Memphis, Tennessee
- Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Jacksonville, Florida
- Bakersfield, California
- Orlando, Florida
- Stockton, California
- Fresno, California
- Baton Rouge, Louisiana
- Palm Bay-Melbourne, Florida
- Tucson, Arizona
- Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Florida
- Riverside-San Bernardino, California
- Columbia, South Carolina
- Greenville-Anderson, South Carolina
- El Paso, Texas
- Sarasota, Florida
- San Antonio, Texas
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero told reporters that officials in the southern Arizona city are responding to the increase in pedestrian fatalities. This spring, voters there approved a $740 million sales tax extension to improve local roads and add features for pedestrians and cyclists.
The council is also exploring the possibility of becoming a Vision Zero city committed to eliminating traffic deaths. Vision Zero proponents stress the need to change the design of streets to make them safer and less prone to human error, which usually involves features that slow motorists down where conflicts with other road users are likely.
“As Tucsonans, we value cycling and bicycling in our city,” Romero said. “We have created hundreds of miles of bike boulevards and infrastructure for bicyclists, yet we are becoming more and more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.”
The mayor said Tucson will also pursue federal grants from last year’s infrastructure law to help make its streets safer.
The authors of “Dangerous by Design” said there was no guarantee the infrastructure law would help the nation’s problems with pedestrian hazards.
“This new law has been touted as a way to improve safety, but it merely allows more spending on safety. This cuts both ways, as this flexibility also allows less spending on safety, at the discretion of state and local leaders,” they wrote.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.